Why Cars Could Be the Next Big Platform for Local Search

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BulliAmid praise and criticism of the flatter design of Apple’s newest mobile operating system, the company quietly introduced a potentially transformative feature in iOS7: iOS in the Car. The feature will allow iPhone users to mirror their devices with the in-dash infotainment systems of new models from a number of major auto manufactures. The move comes as automakers are looking to bring the car to the Web, opening a new market for local services.

Other mobile players and car makers are investing as well. In 2010, Microsoft began developing its embedded automotive product as an extensible technology platform for automakers and suppliers to deliver in-car experiences that keep drivers connected and informed. Meanwhile, auto brands like BMW and Audi have developed their own proprietary systems, and have integrated with products and tools from Google and Yelp to build out applications and services.

Pedestrian-friendly cities like New York and San Francisco may prove a fertile breeding grounds for local discovery apps like Foursquare, but it’s the suburban car-bound consumer that presents the biggest opportunity for local technology companies today and the car is central to that revenue expansion. Here’s a few ways it might play out:

LEAF Restuarant Search by Category
Leaf app displaying restaurant search
    • Data: As people spend more time online in their car, bandwidth issues will increase, making it important to store much of the static and application data within the auto system itself. The Nissan Leaf, for one, which uses the Windows Embedded Automotive 7 System, does this well by syncing data while a car is parked. It does this by connecting the software to a user’s in-home wi-fi network, saving on cell carrier data costs.
    • Battery: Autos have the benefit of providing larger screens and nearly unlimited battery life for app makers to customize information and entertainment experiences. Moreover, battery intensive features like location tracking, which have been problematic for mobile developers, are now on the table.
    • Context: The car may prove to be a better forum for contextual awareness applications than on foot: The ability for the auto to factor in its own data, say  that oil is low, and then display coupons or ads from local services for nearby shops.  Waze already does a good job of this by pushing local ads (“Taco Time 2 for 3 deal,” for example) based on traffic.
    • Integrations: There’s also a large opportunity for existing applications to integrate. An automobile app might be able to recognize that traffic is bad, and notify the OpenTable restaurant that you’ll be late for your reservation.
The Glympse view.
  • Sharing:  So-called “ambient location” applications like Highlight have struggled, largely due to a lack of real value for the consumer, but driving could provide a valuable scenario for the user. Glympse, which has inked deals with Ford and BMW, allows you to share location information with others in real-time. The services goes beyond location to show estimated time of arrival; destination; speed; informs on whether you have your wipers or lights on; and logs what music you are listening to. My wife recently looked up my Glympse location when she knew I had left work the other day to see if I’d passed the Trader Joe’s near my office yet. Realizing I hadn’t, she called and asked me to stop and pick up some items.

It’s no big secret that self-driving robotic cars are coming, but for companies in the local search and discovery space, the car, human-driven or not, may perhaps the most pivotal development in years.

Ali AlamiAli Alami is the Interim CEO of Judy’s Book and KidScore, local search and review sites that connect families with local places. Follow him on twitter @alialami.